Downton Abbey has been one of Independent Television’s biggest money-spinners since its launch in 2010. Sales and audience figures have been specially good in the United States as well as in Britain. The show’s cast of characters are known on both sides of the Atlantic. Leslie Nicol – who plays the cook – tells how she was in New York to attend some theatrical event and a passing taxi driver wound down his window and yelled, “I love you Mrs Patmore!”.
This kind of international recognition and success prompts the question: why on earth should a TV soap opera about early twentieth century aristocrats and their servants be even remotely interesting to today’s democratic, anti-elitist society where anyone can make it to the top on merit, brains and hard work alone – especially in democratic America?
The answer, I think, is that Downton Abbey is about the one subject that commands more interest than any other in both Britain and America – class.
Since 1926, the date when the last series of DA is set, just about every aspect of social life has changed away from the privileged, hierarchical world of Downton. Everyone now has access to further education as a right. More than 50 per cent of people go to university and get a degree. Many others qualify in professional fields or in skilled craftsmanship. All command respect and higher salaries than their grandparents. No-one any longer has to settle for a menial job with no prospects at the beck and call of others, just because they have money.
Americans are – rightly – proud that they “bow the knee to no-one”. Most British people today – certainly anyone under 50, would take it for granted that they are as good anyone else in society and would laugh at the idea of Lord this or Lady that being in any way superior.
Indeed so strongly has the idea of the classless society taken hold in Britain that those individuals who come from a wealthy or aristocratic background find it expedient to play down their privileged origins in order to make themselves acceptable to all. Eton-educated toffs like David Cameron and George Osborne boost their street cred by claiming to be followers of Fulham football club and the latest pop group.
And yet. And yet. Here we are, on both sides of the Atlantic, wondering how the Earl of Grantham will manage his tenants and whether Mrs Bates will carry a baby to full term.
The truth is, we love to cringe in embarrassment when a servant puts his or her foot in it socially. We love to eavesdrop on our “social superiors” as they casually discuss the weekend shooting party, the debutante’s ball, or even slumming it in a louche Soho dance club. We love to feel superior to footmen and ladies maids, but we love just as much tugging our forelocks to the Earl and Countess and we are swept with relief when a weekend guest doesn’t commit some terrible faux pas.
We are quite simply snobs. Deep down, we believe the class system was a natural order of society – probably ordained by Darwinian natural processes – and that somewhere or other, it still exists – even if only in some ethereal spirit realm – waiting to reappear once the fad for all this democratic nonsense has passed away.
Downton Abbey is only the latest in a very long line of popular entertainments all built around and exploiting the same theme – the tensions of a class-ridden society. In TV, Upstairs Downstairs, kept us tutting in annoyance for five years in the 1970s. Similar themes have been exploited successfully in The Shooting Party (1985) and Remains of the Day (1993).
To my mind, most astonishing of all is that Robert Altman of all people, should have fallen under the spell of class tensions for dramatic inspiration. It almost defies belief that the director of Bonanza, M.A.S.H. and The Long Goodbye should have devoted so much energy to exploring the same themes as Downton with Gosford Park (2001).